(STATS) - When it comes to knowing people in high places, new Montana State football coach Jeff Choate once took the concept to another level.
As a first-time head coach leading Challis High School in his native Idaho in 1994, Choate told his players he would commune with the football gods to help bring success to the team.
Little did he know how big an opportunity would come that season.
One night, he was up in the school's fort service lookout that doubled as a press box, when without warning, the half lock came up on the trap door and locked him inside.
He spent the night.
"The next morning I had to turn the P.A. system on to have the principal come out and let me out of the press box," Choate recalled.
By then, mission was accomplished.
"Oh yeah, we communed with the football gods," he said. "We were able to get the 'W' that night."
This year, Choate is part of a similar situation at Montana State. Bobcats football has communed as a program - all with the goal of gaining more "W's" and getting back on track under a new coaching staff.
MSU finished 5-6 last year to suffer its first losing season since 2001. After the disappointing campaign - the Bobcats had been a co-preseason favorite in the Big Sky Conference - popular coach Rob Ash was fired. He was an excellent 70-38 in nine seasons, but also with a relative lack of success against rival Montana and in the FCS postseason.
Hired to lift the program was Choate, communer with the football gods and a 1993 UM Western graduate who has spent most of his 24 seasons in coaching within a 10-hour drive of Bozeman. The last two years, he led the defensive line and special teams at the University of Washington.
The 45-year-old first-time college head coach has a high-energy, highly structured style and considers himself to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
"Running the football is important to me. Stopping the run is important to me," Choate said. "There's no pill that you take to become a better football player, there's no pill that you take to become a better team. You have to work at it. So I think these guys understand what the standard is and how we've got to go work every day. What we're going to hang our hat on around here is being a really sound, fundamental football team that doesn't beat ourselves."
Choate's unwavering focus is geared toward making last season an anomaly for Montana State, the only program in college football history to win national titles on the NAIA, NCAA Division II and FCS (1984) levels.
"That's the standard, but that's a long time ago," Choate said. "I think winning conference championships is awesome, but I think the expectation is that we make a playoff run."
The Bobcats believe they put important pieces in place during their recently concluded spring practices. Choate demands intense practices, and the rest of the coaching staff and the players have followed in that pursuit.
They have adopted a "Rise to the Brand" motto - a nod to the old west. "Which is just live toward something that's larger than yourself," Choate said.
The Bobcats return twice as many starters on defense (eight) than on offense (four), but the offense fueled the team during Ash's tenure. Last year, they ranked first in the 13-team Big Sky in scoring and total offense, often snakebitten by the struggling defense.
Their offensive leader, two-year starting quarterback Dakota Prukop, opted not to return for his final season, instead moving on to Oregon as a graduate transfer - just as Vernon Adams Jr. did last year following his junior season at Eastern Washington.
A different transfer, Tyler Bruggman, stepped in to become No. 1 during spring practices. Having arrived from Scottsdale Community College, Bruggman's hard work and poised play solidified the position for an offense that is deep in the skill positions, including wide receivers Mitchell Herbert and Justin Paige and running backs Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke.
New offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham has had to rebuild the offensive line, however, with All-America tackle JP Flynn being its only returning starter.
"We're going to mix our tempos," Choate said. "We're going to build being a pro-style offense in the future, in terms of work two-back run game, tight end-oriented offense. An offense that looks more like what you see when you watch North Dakota State than what you see when you watch Oregon.
"Right now what we have in terms of our personnel, it doesn't necessarily suit that 100 percent. And so it's going to be a little bit of a hybrid - a lot of similarities to what's been done here in the past with the gun-run spread-option stuff."
The biggest addition to the defense came prior to national signing day as Choate lured his new defensive coordinator, Ty Gregorak, away from Montana. Gregorak had been on the Grizzlies' staff for 12 seasons, including the last four as defensive coordinator.
After Montana finished in the top 10 in the FCS in sacks each of the past two seasons, Gregorak is expected to make the Bobcats defense an aggressive unit capable of consistently pressuring quarterbacks. His unit returns the leading tacklers in linebackers Mac Bignell and Grant Collins.
"Ty, he does a great job with developing relationships with kids," Choate said. "I think we've done a good job through the course of spring in simplifying and identifying who we can be on defense, and I think Ty's been a big part of that from practice to practice, from week to week, saying, 'Here's what I think we can get done with the personnel that we have. Here's how I think we need to adjust our personnel to maximize it.'"
Choate wants to see his players continue to develop chemistry in the coming months leading up to preseason camp. He concedes the team lost a lot of production after last season, but adds it doesn't mean Montana State can't be better as a team.
There's a new culture being built as the Bobcats head toward their season opener at Idaho on Sept. 1.
Who knows, maybe the football gods will be on their side.